“Either sin must drown or the soul burn.” – Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance
I am so thankful that God is in the business of restoring lives from the ravages and tragedy of sin. I am so thankful that in Christ, we have been and are being transformed into new creatures who have been delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. I am so grateful for the Son who has allowed us entrance through the narrow gate leading to life and for the Holy Spirit’s ministry that trains our feet to walk confidently on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake according to the Father’s plan. I am so appreciative of the church of God that shines as light in this dark world, providing salt to those who are perishing.
God’s purpose in the church has more than once been described as a hospital for the spiritually sick. By God’s design, a healthy church becomes an organism used for the purpose of healing broken lives. I have seen first hand when a clear presentation of the gospel during a sermon leads several to the altars in a call to personal repentance from sin and commitment to the Lord. I have also seen a strong church surround themselves in love around an individual or family that in a moment of weakness has given in to the destructive temptation of sin restoring their lives and dignity through the truth of scripture. I have watched as an individual who is filthy and stained from the world wanders into the local church and is able to find refuge and forgiveness amongst God’s redeemed people. These are always exciting moments for me as a believer and warms my heart as a pastor.
Unfortunately, I have also seen the church in error concerning their approach to sin and the gospel. I have seen where we have overreacted with unloving, uncaring self-righteousness towards someone who cries out for mercy over their confessed sin. I have also seen where we have failed to react at all towards sin, shrugging it off as something insignificant. I have watched as sin tore a church apart because it wasn’t handled properly by leadership. I have also watched as pastors fail to clearly address sin out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings leading to the possibility of losing their audience.
Needless to say, congregations as well as individuals can be confused on how to respond to sin in a person’s life. In fact, we as believers can be down right perplexed and baffled concerning what scripture says about sin. It seems to be a growing trend where, in this day and age, more and more followers of Christ are sidestepping the issue of sin because of the confusion surrounding this topic.
While I do not intend in this post to give an exhaustive study on hamartiology, I do want to simply remind ourselves of something that should be a very basic, cardinal equation but for some reason has become muddy and difficult.
The Gospel Equation
If we were to write out the gospel as a simple mathematical equation, we may choose to write it out as follows:
Sin + Jesus Christ = Good News
Now, I know some of you are probably saying to yourselves that this is too simplistic, what about this or what about that? For the purpose of this post, this equation works. Let me explain.
Mankind, through our common ancestor, Adam, are inherently sinful. Through his transgression, sin entered the world causing all to be sinners punishable by death.
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…” Romans 5:12 (NASB95)
Conversely, through one man, the final Adam, Jesus Christ, mankind has the opportunity to be forgiven of all sin and cleansed of all unrighteousness.
“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:18-19 (NASB95)
This then leads us to the end result of Good News (gospel).
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘but the righteous man shall live by faith.'” Romans 1:16-17 (NASB95)
This is a simple equation, I know, but I truly believe in the simplicity of the gospel and for our purposes here, it is sufficient enough to prove my point. So, what happens when we take out part of the equation?
Jesus Christ = Good News
Sin + Jesus Christ = Good News
If Christ is removed or if sin is removed, the end result is no longer good news. We are either left with sin alone with no way of having it atoned for in our lives or we are left with Jesus, who is good but would be worthless to us as a Savior because we wouldn’t even realize we need a Savior.
Furthermore, if it is sin that is removed either by being falsely represented or downplayed or God forbid, ignored completely, then we have nothing by which we are motivated to turn from. Even more so, even if we were to have an inner sense of wrong but there isn’t a clear beacon (think lighthouse) warning us of the dangerous surf from which to navigate away from, then how will we know if we are truly moving away from it?
“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Romans 3:19-20 (NASB95)
“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” Romans 3:31 (NASB95)
Put in other words, how can we be saved if we cannot repent? And how can we repent if we aren’t warned of the dangers of sin? And how will we know what sin is unless God’s righteous law is established? False or ambiguous teaching that leaves us in the fog concerning sin short circuits salvation by obstructing the path of repentance. Therefore, the biblical preaching and teaching of sin is critically important to get right, as Jesus said,
“…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:3 (NASB95)
On the other end of the equation, if it is Christ who is removed, through a denial of His deity, His sinlessness, His atonement, His resurrection, etc., then our equation is obviously just as broken since without Christ we are all still in our sins no matter how accurately or pointedly our sins are explained to us.
“and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” 1 Corinthians 15:17 (NASB95)
So, for the gospel to truly be good news, both values of the equation must be properly represented in the fullness of their meaning. I believe we understand this concerning the characteristics of Jesus but often miss it concerning sin. Let’s look more closely at how I believe we miss an accurate representation of sin by substituting other approaches.
Four Approaches that Lead to Error
While we can definitely err on the side of overreacting and irrationally responding to sin which could hinder the provision of forgiveness through Christ, in this article I wish to focus on the opposite response – that of minimizing and discrediting the doctrine of sin and it’s consequences.
As I sat pondering the issue of sin, I identified four philosophies that seem to be prevalent today in the society of the church (I will probably think of more once this is published which always seems to happen). All four of these views lead to error by offering a misrepresentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ because they short circuit the process of salvation. If we give in to these false representations of sin, then we are truly failing to love sinners by warning them of the wrath to come against all ungodliness and sin. (see Who Are You to Judge?)
1. Ignore the Sin
First off is the approach of simply ignoring the sin. This way of dealing with sin is to not deal with it at all. This method says that even though everyone knows about the pink elephant in the room, no one is willing to address it. Sometimes it is inspired out of fear of causing disunity, sometimes it is inspired out of fear of hypocrisy, sometimes it is inspired out of fear of personal sin being exposed, and sometimes it is inspired by pride and self-righteousness that believe it or not, can overtake an entire congregation of people. So, therefore, sin is overlooked and transgression is disregarded. But just because the issue is avoided, doesn’t mean it goes away. Actually it becomes more difficult to deal with the longer it is avoided.
Paul dealt with this method in the Corinthian church.
“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” 1 Corinthians 5:1-3 (NASB95)
Those in the church at Corinth had chosen to ignore a severely gross sin that was being reported among them. They had chosen to deal with it by not dealing with it – just ignore it and it will go away. But Paul shows us the way. Even though he was not there in person, he told them how he was going to deal with it when he finally arrives. In the following verses, he explains how he will turn the sinners over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that his soul will be saved in the day of the Lord. Paul had a firm grasp on the big picture. Judgment day is coming therefore, we must always be on short accounts with sin.
2. Call Sin Good
Secondly, another error that is often made is when we attempt to call sin something good. In the world we live in, we have really lost our moral compass where we call good, evil and evil, good.
This method is similar to when someone decides to go to the bar, loses their self-control, ends up drunk which leads to further misconduct, wakes up the next day sick, and later justifies it as being a “good time.” Or someone decides to sleep around as a young adult claiming that it is “good” to test the waters before marriage. Or two gay partners are joined in the eyes of the law in what they call marriage and the world celebrates it as “good.” Or innocent babies are aborted and farmed for their body parts or stem cells in the name of personal rights and believe it or not, some people call it “good.” Or a spouse chooses to have an affair with someone and justifies it as something that is “good” because they are in love. On and on it goes.
All of this is wearying to the Lord. This should be nothing of a surprise for us who are readers of the bible but the nation of Israel was also guilty of this same approach to life and sin resulting in the discipline of the Lord.
“You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, ‘How have we wearied Him?’ In that you say, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He delights in them,’ or, ‘Where is the God of justice?’ Malachi 2:17 (NASB95)
Just because sin is a tempting pleasure for a season doesn’t necessarily make it good. In fact, we know this because of the ultimate penalty that comes with sin, namely, death. It may feel good or seem right for a period of time, but eventually the bill has to be paid for the bad seed that was bought and sown.
Furthermore, just because God hasn’t brought about His justice against your sin doesn’t mean He approves of it. It just simply means He is being patient towards you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
“‘Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of hosts.” Malachi 3:5 (NASB95)
3. Change the Meaning of Sin
Thirdly and somewhat similar to approach number two, is the effort to change the meaning of certain sins through false interpretation or citing them to be irrelevant to modern culture. The theory is that those sins that have been explicitly mentioned in the scriptures are somehow different in meaning from those of the same name today. Because there has been a distance of 2000 plus years between the modern times and the Old and New Testaments, we just can’t be sure of the proper definitions of those words and their use in that culture. This is the argument that some have used and are continuing to use concerning homosexuality. They argue that the term homosexual in Paul’s epoch of time meant something different than our modern English usage of the word. In fact, I heard this similar argument used recently concerning divorce; that it doesn’t carry the same meaning and context today as it did in the Hebrew language therefore we shouldn’t condemn it or call it sin. For obvious reasons, this is false.
This approach to sin reminds me of a few of the verses in Romans chapter 1.
“Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man…For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever….” Romans 1:22-23, 25 (NASB95)
When it comes to sin, mankind cannot afford to be wise in their own eyes by reinterpreting scripture to mean something it doesn’t mean. When we find this approach to sin being practiced, we find along with it self-worship and lies.
4. Minimize the Consequences of Sin
The fourth approach goes along with the third which is the redefinition, diminishment, or complete removal of the consequences of sin. Maybe one of the worst misrepresentations of sin is when we fail to lay out the consequences of sin. The destructiveness of sin must never be underestimated.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Galatians 6:7-8 (NASB95)
The Correct Response
The common thread which weaves itself through all of these approaches causing them to be in error is that they deny a true biblical representation of what sin is and does. Furthermore, these are in error because they attempt to diminish the holiness of God and avoid the justification for sinners through Jesus Christ. While there are probably multiples of other ways in which sin is mishandled, I believe there is really only one right way to handle it biblically. Once again, this may be seen as oversimplified and non-academic, but the only way in which the Lord is truly glorified as the holy, holy, holy God that He is, where His Son is eternally magnified as our Savior, where sin is given it’s proper place, and the equation of the gospel adds up correctly is when we magnify the sin and exalt the Savior.
Step one is to magnify sin. When I say magnify in the context of sin, I am not saying glorify. If I were, I would be guilty of approach number two above where sin is called something that is good or even thinking it is something beautiful, such as sex outside of marriage. It is not…it is ugly. But what I do mean by magnify sin, is that we expose it for what it truly is. It is not making a little mistake, it is not committing a little white lie, it is not a boo-boo, and it is not to be ignored. It is missing the mark of God’s call to His holy, perfect righteousness and it sends people to hell. Sin carries with it the utmost highest level of seriousness and calls us to the most extreme position of sobriety in dealing with it. To do otherwise would be spiritual suicide and failure to warn others about it would be unloving.
Step two is to exalt the Savior. As tempting, evil, dangerous, and powerfully corrupting as sin is, Jesus has overwhelmingly broken the curse of sin and death forever. This cannot be overstated, overemphasized, or repeated often enough. Jesus is the One who was prophesied about, was worshiped by shepherds and angels at His birth, was followed by multitudes, was rejected by His own kinsmen, was deceived by one of His own disciples, was numbered with the transgressors, was beaten and abused, was innocent yet condemned, was offered up as our Passover Lamb, was crucified and buried, was laid in a new tomb, was revived after three days, was hailed as victorious over principalities and powers, was the One who made a public display of them having triumphed over them, was ascended to the right hand of the Father, was the One who declared it is finished, and because He lives so I too shall live eternally free from corruption to sin and death in a new heaven and new earth where there is no longer any mourning or crying or pain for the first things have passed away. He is our exalted Savior.
Be Gracious to Me, a Sinner
So…you’re a sinner? Me too and I hate it. It breaks my heart. But I am overjoyed and comforted by the fact that God has demonstrated His love for me that while I was yet in my sins, Christ died for me. I would like to leave you with the first fourteen verses of Psalm 51 that are near and dear to my heart.
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
Psalm 51:1-14 (NASB95)
A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba